Wednesday, May 4, 2011

"Weapons of Peace" in Alma 24:19 and in Ancient Egyptian Borrowings from Hebrew

Every reader of the Book of Mormon stumbles upon--and over--the following verse from Alma:

And thus we see that, when these Lamanites were brought to believe and to know the truth, they were firm, and would suffer even unto death rather than commit sin; and thus we see that they buried their weapons of peace, or they buried the weapons of war, for peace (Alma 24:19, italics added).

Editions of the Book of Mormon before 1849 read: And thus we see that they buried the weapons of peace, or they buried the weapons of war for peace. "The weapons of peace" differs significantly from "their weapons of peace"--it hints at a distinct idiom peculiar to the Book of Mormon, as we shall see.
(Royal Skousen, Analysis of Textual Variants in the Book of Mormon, Part Four, 2113-2114)

"The weapons of peace"? The phrase stumps everyone. Clarity follows: "the weapons of peace" means "they buried the weapons of war, for peace." Ah, yes! Weapons of peace are weapons of war now laid to rest, and thus turned to peace.

Many Latter-day Saints doubtless see the corrective, explanatory clause as yet another indicant Joseph Smith translated from a language lost to memory. According to Emma, Joseph never paused for revision. Instead he struggled with an unfamiliar idea or idiom, sometimes grasping for words, until he got his "mind satisfied." Then he just moved on, leaving the knotty idiom as a trace of the pitfalls of translation (see Doctrine and Covenants, Section 9). A reader may light upon the unusual with joy and patience; a modern editor, agape at "weapons of peace" and intolerant of first drafts, lights on the author and demands: "and thus we see that they buried their weapons of war, for peace."

We see a tangled skein because Alma (or Mormon) first uses a synthetic idiom, and then gives a clearer, though parenthetical, reading. And we might wonder whether we are seeing a purposeful play on words or some special usage for rhetorical effect. Such a usage of "or" plus clarifying phrase, as many have noted, peppers much of the Book of Alma, especially the War Chapters, and certainly works to heighten rhetorical power, though the effect in English can fall flat.

Grasping for words to express an unfamiliar idiom? Anyone who struggles to put the hieroglyphs into a modern idiom will relate. Ancient Egyptian keeps many a surprise. Consider how Egyptian borrowed extensively from Hebrew and adapted the borrowed words in novel ways. The borrowing even included the best known of all Hebrew verbs, sh-l-m (to be at peace, to be whole). We all know what shalom means.

The Egyptians--had they only known it--did not need to borrow the Hebrew root sh-l-m. Their own language, from the beginning, already knew a word of health and greeting cognate to Hebrew shalom: s-n-b ~ sh-l-m. (The letters n and b often correspond to Hebrew l and m.) The Egyptian word for "Greetings"! "Health and Peace be unto you"! is Yet the Egyptians did indeed borrow "Shalom!" And once borrowed, they adapted the word to express things never expressed. (James E. Hoch, Semitic Words in Egyptian Texts of the New Kingdom and Third Intermediate Period, #406, sha=ra=ma, as it appears in hieroglyphic "group writing" = *shalama? *shallema? "To Greet; Make Obeisance; Do Homage;" 283-284; #408, sha-ra-ma ~ shalama, "Peace; Greetings," 285-286).

New Kingdom Egyptian uses Hebrew sha=ra=ma (*shalama or *shallema) to express a nuanced idea of peace (Hoch, Semitic Words, #407, 285). For Professor Hoch, the word conveys two related actions: 1) "The word is used of putting away weapons," and 2) "The word is also used more generally with the sense of 'seeking peace.' " Hoch's definition of sha=ra=ma in Egyptian usage accordingly reads: "Vb. 'To Lay Down (Arms); Seek Peace.' " It is the first of these definitions that hits the reader of Alma 24:19 with a shock of recognition.

Consider the following three examples of sha=ra=ma (*shalama or *shallema) found in Egyptian texts:

"Their bows and their weapons [x'w.w] were laid to rest [sha=ra=ma] in their store-rooms" (P. Harris I 78,11 [Dynasty 20]).

"And their weapons [x'ywere laid to rest [sha=ra=ma]" (P. Boulaq 6, 3 [Dynasty 21]).

"Put down [Sh-r-ma] (your) bows; lay down [sfx: loosen, relax, release] (your) arrows" (Pi'ankhy 12 [Dynasty 25]). (Note how the Egyptian name Pi'ankhy finds its match in Book of Mormon Paanchi, as no less a student than William F. Albright pointed out long ago.)

Let's try another translation or two of Pi'ankhy 12:

Put at peace bows; unbind arrows.

Pacify bows; relax arrows.

Slacken bows to rest; loosen arrows.

The wording is beautiful and poetic. Could we read Alma in the original language, we might sense something of the same.

For the second definition, Hoch gives the following example:

Kupara came to seek peace [jw r sha=ra=ma = Heb. yrd lshalom, "come down to pay respects," II Kings 10:13, cf. Hoch, 284].

Semitic languages modify the verbal root (usually consisting of three root letters) by means of prefixes, infixes, doubling of letters, lengthened vowels, and so on, to express passive, factitive, causative, associative, and reflexive meaning. We call such modifications of the root morphological verbal stems. For instance, D-stems (Doppelstamm) double the middle consonant of the triliteral root and often express causative, distributive, intensive, factitive, or even denominative meaning, that is, they make nouns into verbs.

Several Semitic languages show variations on the verbal root sh-l-m in order to express the making of peace or even the concrete action of laying down arms. The Biblical Hebrew H-stem of sh-l-m (the hiphal, or causative, stem with prefixed h) signifies "to make peace"; in Talmudic Aramaic the causative A-stem signifies "to make peace; surrender"; the D-stem in Syriac, "to surrender; make peace"; the D-stem in Old South Arabic, "to sue for peace"; in Ethiopic (D-stem?), "to make peace"; and, finally, the D-stem in Arabic, which specifically marks actions referring to weapons: "to lay down (arms); surrender" (examples all from Hoch, 285, see also 284.)

Though Egyptian may, perhaps, borrow a Hebrew noun having the morphological properties of a verbal stem--*shallema, if that is the correct reading, suggests a verbal form derived from the Hebrew D-stem--Egyptian proper makes no use of like verbal stems (though some traces of archaic reflexive N-stems persist). "The form is possibly the D-stem, as in Arabic, but the Egyptians may have simply used the nominal form meaning 'peace' as if it were a verb" (Hoch, 285). Whether nominal *shalama or verbal *shallema, sha=ra=ma, when adopted (and adapted) by the Egyptians, expresses verbal meaning: "to greet, make obeisance, do homage, to lay down (arms), to seek peace."

What a word!

And it is only because such a borrowed, "frozen" form expresses verbal meaning, something peculiar to Egyptian among the Afro-Asiatic languages, that we can imagine a phrase weapons of peace, as a verbal phrase in the original record. I see the original Egyptian-cum-Hebrew wording for Alma's weapons of peace as x'w.w shalama. In attempting to render the verbal monstrosity weapons pacified into an acceptable English, the translator perforce nominalizes the phrase as a genitival construction: "weapons of peace"--two nouns glued together by genitive of into one happy phrase. And here he stumbles--only to make a stunning recovery: "weapons of war, for peace." The best way to view the original is as verbal phrase, though we could also imagine an appositive genitival phrase: "weapons in respect of peace"; "weapons in a state of peace" (really a verbal sense); or, literally enough, though awkwardly, "the weapons of peace" or "the peaceful weapons."

David Whitmer relates how Joseph would take breaks from translation, relax his mind, by skipping stones in a pond. If ever there was occasion for such a break--"a time to gather stones together" as a personal "weapon of peace"--it was Alma 24:19.

"Peace Weapons"? "Peaceful Weapons?" No wonder the Prophet Joseph Smith struggled with the phrase. Because shalama here functions as a verb, x'w.w shalama literally signifies "weapons laid down in an act of submission or peace," or "weapons put into a state of peace"--what we would call "deactivated." (Indeed anthropology has much to say about the ceremonial stilling of the arms of war.)

We search diligently for what Hugh Nibley calls "the peculiar and the specific." The specific lexical nuance found in the peculiar Egyptian usage of borrowed Hebrew sh-l-m resonates with Alma's odd phrase, "weapons of peace."

And their weapons were laid to rest (jw n3y.w x'y sha=ra=ma).
Or: And their weapons of peace/And their weapons in respect of, or in reference to, peace/in a state of peace/at peace.

And thus we see that they buried their weapons of peace, or they buried the weapons of war, for peace (Alma 24:19).


"Mind satisfied": a phrase the Prophet used to describe the intellectual and spiritual calm following his intense quest for spiritual truth and his First Vision of the Father and the Son in the Spring of 1820. The Prophet worked long to get his mind satisfied. Such work comprehends years of thought, reading, and observation, so well as the quickening moments of revelation in which the passage of time has but little to do with the celerity of the enlightened seeric mind. Hence William Clayton speaks of "prophets' time." Joseph Smith, in his task of translation, inhabits "prophets' time", a place or season beyond our comprehension.

Engraving Error? Daniel H. Ludlow, in A Companion to Your Study of the Book of Mormon, 210 (Deseret Book, 1977), puts forward the idea of an error in engraving for Alma 24:19. "Peace" was engraved on the gold plates by mistake; Mormon then corrected his error--would he have struck out the error first?--by writing, "what I meant to say was 'war.'" Logic works against the idea. Should the Prophet have encountered like errors in engraving--and there were such--why would he not have simply translated what the ancient prophet intended to write all along? In translation, mind meets mind. He wasn't trying to put out a "critical edition" of the Words of Mormon or a Mormon Plates Project.

Still, who can say?

In the view of this writer, it does not aid understanding to pinpoint the moment of error or confusion, or to ask whether it was Helaman, Ammoron, Mormon, or Joseph Smith who supplied correction or clarification to an original text. Answer: It was all of the above. Better to see transmission, including translation, as a continuum embracing Alma, Mormon, Joseph Smith, and the Modern Reader, all of whom make up an integral part in the on-going understanding of a place in Scripture. Alma-Mormon-Joseph-Reader make up one chain of both transmission and interaction: We shake hands with all the Prophets as we continue their work of understanding and applying God's word. Many wonder how Joseph Smith translated Alma or even the book of Abraham. The question to ask is How do you read it? If the Reader, in the continuing effort of transmission, struggles with a particular phrase; so, we must suppose, did Alma, Mormon, Joseph Smith.

Of course, the farther back we go in time and languages, the more muddled things may get. We have to get our bearings as readers of an English book before we wade into deeper waters and unfamiliar idiom. In other words, we must immediately come to grips with the matter of who bears responsibility for that English. One thing only that every reader knows, and knows with absolute certainty, he is not responsible for the English translation of the Book of Mormon. Joseph Smith bears that responsibility (not Alma, Mormon, nor Moroni)--the buck stops with Joseph Smith--hence we focus on the difficulties of his divinely assigned task of rendering Egyptian and Hebrew idiom into English. We need to rid our mind of supposition and theory. Hebraisms there may be, Elizabethan usage we may spot, yet where the English of the Book of Mormon is concerned, the buck stops with Joseph Smith. Who can deny it?

Egyptian or Hebrew? Answer: Both.

The language written on the gold plates was an amalgam of both Egyptian and Hebrew. People wonder, despite Nephi's clear statement about making his record in the language of the Egyptians, whether the Gold Plates proffers Egyptian or Hebrew, that is, Hebrew in some form of Egyptian script. When we understand that the Egyptian of Lehi's day, and for hundreds of years previous, had extensively borrowed from Hebrew and other Semitic cousins, the question instantly loses significance. Nephi wrote in the language of the Egyptians, of his day--and there's an end on't.

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